Rice wine, or Sra, is one of Cambodia’s oldest homemade alcoholic drinks. It is synonymous with family celebrations, events and ceremonies as well as rural farm workers and city labourers. It also boasts perceived health benefits while being responsible for a string of hospitalisations and deaths.
However, while Cambodia’s alcohol consumption and GDP rise hand in hand, rice wine seems to have been left behind as drinkers have begun to favour beer or imported spirits over the traditional drink.
Indeed, the increasing advertisement of alcohol in the Kingdom has majorly influenced Cambodian consumption and for a country with around 65 percent of its population under 30 and no minimum drinking age law, the next, wealthier generation are readily making their way through the variety of new liquor available.
Therefore, where does the traditional tipple find itself in the modern age and does the continued development of Cambodia spell the end for rice wine?
Raising a glass
Siem Reap-based rice wine producing company, Sepakam Sombai, said while it is true Cambodians’ taste in liqour is shifting, there is no reason why rice wine cannot move with the times.
“Cambodian people tend to drink more and more international liquors now, like Cognac or wine for example. Especially more affluent people,” it said.
However, the company said rice wine still remains important to Cambodian people as it is part of their heritage.
“Rice wine is still the main alcoholic beverage in rural areas and almost every Cambodian has their family roots in the countryside. Therefore, it’s still relevant, especially during events such as Khmer New Year when people return to their provinces,” the company said.
The route rice wine should take, Sombai said, is to both capitalise on its traditional appeal while evolving to meet new demand.
“Traditional rice wine should be rebranded, modernised and flavoured in order to appeal to the Khmer urban population that has shifted to western drinks. This would also be a way to support Cambodia and Cambodian products,” it said.
“We combined our operations with art, creating bespoke bottles for our signature liquors which are flavoured using local ingredients. This way we are supporting Cambodian producers and keeping rice wine relevant while capitalising on tourist demand,” said the company.
Sombai is not alone in exploiting rice wine for a positive outcome for Cambodia.
Despite this product having fallen out of favour with urban Cambodians, it is a growing attraction for tourists who want a traditional experience as part of their trip.
Tours around provinces, such as Battambang and Kratie, start from as little as $30 for the day and include stops for rice wine and whiskey tasting, where tourists can view brewing methods and try the spirits alongside bamboo sticky rice and other typical rural foods.
A number of NGOs in the Kingdom are also flying the flag for the traditional drink, selling the product in order to benefit their development programmes.
The Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), which aims to build agricultural capacity and knowledge of rural farmers, is one such NGO which sells rice wine for the benefit of the organisations and the farmers involved in the process.
CEDAC’s rice wine is made chemical free, with the organisation responsible for quality control packaging and distribution, factors which all together make the rice wine not only a safe choice for consumers but a responsible purchase which gives back into the local communities.
The aforementioned examples shine a light on the potential rice wine has if steps are taken by stakeholders to add value and ensure safety of the product. It is without this added value, that Cambodian rice wine will remain cast aside as the cheaply produced remnants of rural life.
A mixture of issues
The charm of rice wine is both its making and its downfall, as amateur producers stray from traditional methods of production and experiment with new chemicals and concoctions to make the production process quicker and batches stronger, unchecked by any regulations.
Experimentation with methanol, a chemical similar to ethanol but not for human consumption, has proven lethal with annual death tolls attributed to wine tainted with the chemical. The latest of which, reported by Khmer Times, resulted in seven deaths and 20 people hospitalised after drinking a wine labelled as “Tang Kouy” in Banteay Meanchey within the last month.
Sombai, say that building trust within their rice wine brand has been important to evolve their business.
“We have built confidence with travel agencies, tourists and consumers through registering with websites such as TripAdvisor so people can review their experience.”
However, the company said that in order to exploit more international markets, it also needs to work on production measures to meet international requirements, to take Cambodian rice wine international.
“We encounter some issues with our product as far as exportation is concerned. Since our liqueur has soaked fruits inside, there are different classifications from one country to another. The labelling is different, the level of alcohol per volume can change from one batch to another batch etc. So we should probably work on a more standard recipe to make it easier to export.”
However, a local Cambodian in the capital, Srey Da, is adamant people only drink wine because they can’t afford something better.
“A glass of rice wine is only around $0.10, with one litre costing around $1,” he said. “The main appeal is that it is a cheap way to get drunk, it’s affordable for poor people. For that price, they still drink it despite the health risks.”
“If people can afford better alcohol, they don’t drink it. If it was produced better it would cost more so maybe poor people wouldn’t be able to afford it, so they don’t invest in production methods,” Mr Da added.
The future path of Cambodian rice wine, therefore, lies fittingly in the hands of Cambodians, but at both ends of the spectrum.
On one end, government regulations and enforcement are needed to ensure that rice wine is produced safely. Rather than reactive action being taken against producers of tainted wine, preventive measures are required to stop rice wine poisoning.
On the other end, by adhering to safe production and international standards – ultimately evolving the product itself – Cambodian wine makers can embark on making rice wine a product of value, rather than a cheap way to get drunk.
Moreover, this is without taking into account the beneficiaries of wine production, from the agriculture and tourism sectors to the pigs that get to eat the left over husks from its production.
Although there will always be a market globally for bootleg liquor, a change in perspective driven by the NGOs and rice wine connoisseurs in the Kingdom could just offer a new chapter in rice wine’s long history at a time when Cambodia needs something to raise a glass to.